Organ donors are an incredibly important part of the healthcare system, and there are never enough for the number of people who need transplants. Being selected as the recipient of a new organ is a special privilege, and it is important to be acutely aware of all of the risks, benefits, and processes that are associated with organ transplants, from the perspectives of both the donor and the recipient. If you or a loved one are currently waiting on an organ donor, there are many facts about the transplant process that you should know.
Organs Can Come from Many Sources
Many people erroneously believe that organ donation can only occur if someone else dies and chooses to donate their organs. It is also possible to transplant an organ from a healthy person, under the right circumstances. Most countries have a database of organ donors, and people can indicate their organ donation status on their driver’s license cards. In order for that donation to occur, however, potential donors must meet certain criteria. Although both living and deceased donors can be of any age, they must pass a medical screening to verify that they are a good match and are not passing on any diseases that could make the recipient sick.
A Variety of Factors Must Match
While most people know that organs can only be transplanted if their blood type is compatible, there are other factors that go into making this determination. Tissue type must match as well, although there are some anti-rejection treatments that can be done if an exact match isn’t found. Organs are also more likely to be compatible with patients with similar ethnic backgrounds. While it can be frustrating for recipients who are waiting for an organ to be limited in these ways, it is done to protect them from a situation in which their body rejects the organs, and their recovery is further complicated.
Transplant Surgeries Are Time-consuming
For organ donor recipients, the wait for a new organ is so long that their surgery itself seems short. However, if you have a loved one undergoing surgery, it can be nerve-wracking to wait for them. Depending on the type of organ and how many prior transplants you have had, times may vary. A liver transplant, for example, can take up to eight hours to complete. Transplant surgery for new pancreas averages closer to three hours. Prior to your surgery, you and your loved ones should speak with the surgeon about the estimated times and any potential complications.
Expect a Hospital Stay
Hospital stays after transplant surgery can range anywhere from a few days to two weeks, depending on a variety of factors. Assuming your recovery goes well and there were no complications or pre-existing conditions, you can expect to stay about a week. This gives the doctors time to monitor your progress and make sure that your body is accepting the transplant initially. Transplant surgery is major surgery and you should allow yourself to recover slowly. After a day or two of bed rest, your care team will help you to sit up and take short walks as you begin to heal.
Immunosuppressants Are Key
After your surgery, your doctor will prescribe your immunosuppressants. Your immune system may try to attack the new organ because it is a foreign tissue. If this happens, your body may reject the transplant even if you were a compatible match. Consequently, immunosuppressants can help to control the immune system so that this does not occur. However, they also lower your ability to fight everyday infections and viruses, so be cautious about contracting other illnesses while taking this medication. If you notice any adverse side effects or symptoms of infection, you should contact your physician immediately.
Take Precautions After Surgery
Whenever someone has surgery, they are already at a higher risk for infections and other complications. With organ transplants, immunosuppressants make this risk even more severe. Make sure to avoid people who are sick, even if you aren’t sure whether that person is contagious. Wash your hands frequently, and use hand sanitizer if no soap is available. Do not go out in public to places that may contain germs, like grocery stores, malls, concerts, or restaurants. Avoid common sources of bacteria, like children, animals, the outdoors, and sugary foods. Finally, do not interact with people who have recently had vaccines, as you will be susceptible to contracting the illness they were vaccinated for.
Medications Last a Lifetime
After your surgery, you will spend about a year recovering. Even after that initial period is up and the danger of rejection has decreased, you will still need to take a constant regiment of pills for the rest of your life. These pills help to keep you healthy and should be taken seriously. Consult your physician about the best times of day to take them, and create a system that will help you to remember. Be aware of the risks of missing a dose, and make sure to get refills well in advance of running out. By following your doctor’s instructions exactly, you can help your body to stay healthy over time.
Side Effects Are Unpleasant
After your transplant surgery, you may have many side effects that are caused in part by the immunosuppressants. You should talk to your doctor about any side effects that you experience so that they can decide the best course of action. These side effects may be physical, such as nausea and vomiting, swelling, weight gain, headaches, and acne. They can also be mental and emotional, including anxiety, insomnia, and intense mood swings. It may be beneficial to ask your loved ones to report any side effects that they notice after your surgery, since mental and emotional issues may be difficult to self-detect.
Organ Donors Are Unpaid
If you are considering being an organ donor, you should know that hospitals and patients cannot pay you for your donation. It is illegal to exchange money for organs, in order to keep the playing field for waitlists even. In most situations, the recipient’s insurance will pay for your medical expenses and initial recovery costs if you are a living donor. If the donor is deceased, the recipient’s insurance will cover all of the donation costs, such as testing and surgery to remove the organs. While paying for organs might seem like a good way to get more people to donate, it would tilt the system in favor of the wealthiest patients, and would not be beneficial overall.
Be Prepared for Complications
Transplanting organs is no easy feat, and many patients will experience later complications that result in short hospital stays or bedrest at home. It is important to be realistic about your limitations, and know that, especially in the first year, there is a significant risk of further issues. If you return to work, you should try to work in an environment that is flexible and understanding of the situation, and can give you time off to deal with any complications that arise. Do not postpone treatment or try to work through it. Any symptoms of rejection should be treated as an emergency.